When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:2-11 – NRSV)
David Hume (1711-1776), Scottish philosopher, had an immense impact on Western thinking, especially Western Christianity. In particular he argued that, since the existence of a Deity could not be proved, religion could only be proved credible by “miracles”.
Hume defined a “miracle” as a “transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent” – see his An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (Section 10). Although he did allow for the possibility that miracles do happen he said the overwhelming evidence is that they have not happened.
This line of thinking provoked an unfortunate response among many Christian thinkers. The issue of Jesus’ “miracles” than became a rather simplistic and misleading debate between those who believed in the “miracles” as recorded and concluded that Christianity must be the true religion, those who did not believe in the “miracles” and concluded that Christianity could not make such a claim and those who tried to steer a middle ground, concluding that although the “miracles” did not occur, Christianity is in fact the true religion.
This is in fact a pointless debate.
Scripture scholar N T Wright makes two helpful observations. In the first instance Wright points out that the Gospel writers use varying words to describe what we call “miracles”.
“the evangelists used words like paradoxa, things one would not normally expect; dunameis, displays of power or authority; terata or semeia, signs or portents. The closest we come to ‘miracle’ is the single occurrence of thaumasia, ‘marvels’, in Matthew 21:15. These words do not carry, as the English word ‘miracle’ has sometimes done, overtones of invasion from another world, or from outer space. They indicate, rather, that something has happened, within what we would call the ‘natural’ world, which is not what would have been anticipated, and which seems to provide evidence for the active presence of an authority, a power, at work, not invading the created order as an alien force, but enabling it t be more truly itself.” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress Press, 1996, 188.)
In the second instance, Wright points out that most scholars today would accept that Jesus did in fact perform acts that had no obvious or simple explanation:
“Few serious historians now deny that Jesus, and for that matter many other people, performed cures and did other startling things for which there was no obvious natural explanation. But Christian apologetics has moved on as well: ‘miracles’ are not advanced as a ‘proof’ of anything much. What matters far more is intention and meaning. What did Jesus think he was doing, and why? What did his deeds mean to those involved, and to those who passed on the tradition?” (Ibid)
For the first disciples it seems obvious what these deeds meant. As with so many of the events and teachings in the life of Jesus, the disciples believed it all added up to Jesus being the promised Anointed One. And so Matthew has Jesus say:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
If we go back to Chapters 8 & 9 we find descriptions of these deeds – the blind receive their sight (8:27-30), the lame walk again (8:5-13 & 9:1-7), lepers are cleansed (8:1-4), the deaf hear again (8:32-34), the dead are raised up (9:18-26) and the poor hear the Good News (5:3). (The term for ‘deaf’ – kophos – can also mean ‘mute’.)
Matthew in fact echoes the Prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 26:19: “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”
Isaiah 35:5-6: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
Isaiah 61:1-2: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Matthew also implies that John the Baptist is thinking along these same lines: “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing …”
“Are you the one ….?”
The response – rather than “answer” – to this question must be lived. The response is an entering into a relationship. If we believe Jesus is “the one”, then our very beings become shaped by that. To believe is to be in love. Doctrine and law are secondary and interpretive. Christianity – discipleship – is about being in love.
Pope Benedict describes it well:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of humankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”. We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his or her life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (The opening words of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus caritas est.)